EAST IS EAST – Touring

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A story about identity, packaged as a comedy but addressing some very real and hard-hitting issues, East is East is a slick production. Simon Nagra’s George Khan is a Pakistani immigrant, a staunch Muslim married to a Salford woman and the father of seven children. The play captures the life of his family as he does everything he can to cling on to his heritage and culture and we witness just how difficult this is.

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DISCO – Victoria Pub, London

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If you like your reviews as short and sour as a tequila slammer, let me say just this: site-specific DISCO, that ran for three days from 2nd June, isn’t going to impress those who thrive off imaginative and original storytelling. And the drawn-out tale of online dating, embarrassingly pushy mates and dance floor awkwardness that sits at the heart of this evening certainly won’t revolutionise your understanding of life, the universe or anything in between.

JULIAN GLOVER’S BEOWULF – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, London

*****

Adapted by Julian Glover from the translations by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan and from the Bristol Old Vic production directed by John David and John Elvery

Julian Glover

Beowulf is an Old English (possibly the oldest English) poem. Known to have been written in the tenth century, but with probable older origins, it’s verses tell of a time of dragons, sea monsters, smoking swords and throughout it all wassail and riotous assembly in cavernous mead halls.
Julian Glover has been reciting the poem for nigh on thirty years, in a version that he has painstakingly laboured over. His editing of the verse has led to it being mainly recited in the contemporary idiom, with an occasional stanza of Old English and his helpful programme notes tell us of history having stressed that Beowulf “should not only be read to oneself, but spoken out loud”. Thus it was, for two shows only last weekend, that Glover was to give his final performances of the poem in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 
The venue was enchanting. Lit mainly by flickering candles (supplemented by a floodlit yellow wash) the Playhouse offers an elegant Elizabethan intimacy and that it was packed on a pleasant spring afternoon speaks much for Julian Glover’s reputation.
Glover’s delivery is the work of a master. Such is the actor’s genius that even when speaking in the ancient tongue, typically unintelligible to a modern audience, his rhythm enhanced by a perfect emphasis on the text’s alliterative strengths made even the most incomprehensible language seem crystal clear.
Using minimal props (a tankard, sword and throne, all used only occasionally) and dressed in simple, sober modern blacks, Glover’s recital, through perfectly honed inflection and nuance, was a step back in time. For what must be nigh on millennia, folk have been entertained by talented raconteurs telling stories and this is precisely the ambience that Glover achieved. A man as at home performing in a Broadway musical as he is mastering Shakespeare, this wonderful actor held the crowd in the palm of his hand.
This review covered the matinee performance. Later that evening Glover’s son Jamie, an accomplished actor himself, was to inherit his father’s mantle by concluding the recital and carrying on its oral tradition. 
Today’s writers, directors and dramaturgs would do well to attend the future recitals of Glover Junior. Simply staged and beautifully performed, the purest of theatre does not get better than this.

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McQUEEN – St James Theatre

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James Phillips’ new play McQueen offers a lavish tribute to one of Britain’s most acclaimed fashion designers. That Alexander McQueen was to tragically take his own life at 40 only (ghoulishly?) adds to his iconic mystique – though as the play opens with McQueen contemplating his own mortality and then proceeds to take us through what is suggested to be his last night alive, the narrative’s structure at times suggests a re-branded Arthur Miller. In place of Salesman, think Death Of A Designer.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Noel Coward Theatre, West End

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Plaudits have already been heaped on Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman in Greg Doran’s scorching production of Death of a Salesman for the RSC. Arthur Miller’s keynote play, long held up as a searching critique of the 20th-century American psyche, pitches Sher into a role that sees him suicidally depressed, hurled onto the scrap heap and casually catapulted between imaginary decades at the playwright’s whim. Often referred to as the Hamlet of American literature, Sher’s immersion in the role is total as he nails Loman’s doomed fragility.

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Harriet Walter: In Conversation about Death Of A Salesman

In Features, Interviews, London theatre, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Harriet Walter
Rarely has a show moved to the West End at the lightning speed with which the RSC have transferred Death Of A Salesman. Opening in Stratford upon Avon only last month, to rave reviews across the board, Greg Doran’s interpretation of the Arthur Miller classic features Antony Sher as Willy Loman, the titular doomed salesman.
It is Harriet Walter however, one of our finest performers and arguably the RSC’s leading lady of her generation, who plays opposite Sher as Linda, Loman’s long suffering spouse.

Having reviewed the Stratford production, I can confirm that both actors deliver virtuoso performances – with Walter in particular giving a finely tuned display of loving loyalty, made all the more excruciating as she witnesses her family disintegrate before her eyes. Few playwrights have offered such a devastating analysis of the complexities of marriage and maternity as Arthur Miller does with Linda.

The RSC company were completing their rehearsals last week, prior to opening at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, when I caught up over lunch with Harriet to learn more about her remarkable interpretation of Linda.  




JB:    Harriet, thank you for finding the time in your hectic schedule to talk. I’m going to dive straight into the role of Linda and ask, what you have found to be the key elements in bringing this woman, who is pivotal to the story as both a wife and a mother, to the stage?
HW:    Well, first of all, I had seen the play before but only some time ago, so I hadn’t really got a great recollection of the part and so it helped that I came to it with fairly innocent eyes.
I’ve come from a company where I’ve been playing Henry IV in an all-female Shakespeare, so it was quite a twist for me to be playing a character who is completely, ostensibly selfless and whose own ambitions are thoroughly sublimated in her ambitions for her family. 
It really wasn’t a very long step to realize that the part was my mother, that it’s my mother-in-law and that it’s several million women, still, in certain parts of the world.
JB:    To what extent, if at all, are you able to identify with Linda? 
HW:    There are parts that are very close to you and you just bring your own experience to them and there are parts that are not at all close to you and you have to censor yourself and restrain your own reactions and think very honestly about that character within the context of the play and ask yourself: Do you know anybody like that?
The answer is, there are plenty of people like that and some of them, like Linda, do appear to be almost saintly.
You don’t get any sense of her own resentment, in any direction, of what she’s putting up with. In a world where that was considered the norm, she doesn’t consider herself particularly unfortunate. There is no self-pity in the role.
I have to add, that there’s also no self-pity in the role of Willy Loman, which I think is the great strength of Antony Sher’s performance. 
I just felt, with Linda, she was somebody who doesn’t have any sense of being pushed aside, or of not being allowed to express her own wishes, she has no feminist agenda and she has actually reduced things to a very simple equation, which is that whatever makes Willy happy and stay alive is what she will do and anything that obstructs that, even if it’s the presence of her beloved son in her house, whom she would normally love – she’s telling him he can never come back if he’s going to upset his father. 
It’s a bit like Sophie’s Choice really.She literally has to choose between her son and her husband. I think that it’s awful that she has simplified it down to that, but that is just a decision that she’s made and that’s got to happen.
Obviously there are lots of complicated emotions underneath that, but I don’t think she allows them to surface. 

JB:    Linda is obviously aware of Willy’s state of mind, but do you believe that she is aware of his infidelity?
HW:    It’s so varied, but there are indications from Arthur Miller that deep down she is troubled. 
There are two moments, which I’m sure you observed, when she’s about to talk about a woman who saw the car crash and she says: “Apparently there’s a woman, …” and her son Biff interrupts her and they talk over one another in the script, talking at the same time. Biff says: “What woman?” She says: “What?” and their dialog is overlapping one another and then she says: “Now, what did you say?” and Biff replies, “Nothing. Just you carry on.” 
And you have to ask, now why does a playwright bother to put that little interruption in? It’s brilliant. It just indicates that somewhere, she has got this trigger reaction, because somewhere in her subconscious she’s thinking, “He’s out on the road, why wouldn’t he? He gets lonely,” and then he’s obviously behaved slightly differently towards her and he’s pounced on her about the stockings. 
It’s not like Linda’s going to put it together, but I think she knows something. It’s like, as I said before, it’s a restraint. Personally, that is very alien to me, to bury your own worries and to sit on things.
And then Linda does have a little strange question at the end of the first act, when she’s just got Willy settled to go to bed and everything’s seemingly calm. She goes and says, “Willy, dear, what has he got against you?” and I thought to myself: Why does Linda bring that up now? He’s calm Linda, what are you doing?
And then I realised that this is the only moment that she loses her guard and is not being very sensible. Linda is so troubled by this, because ten minutes earlier, Biff has said, “He’s a fake,” and that has caused her this little ripple. 
That ripple has stayed with her, so that she wants her husband to elaborate and so she goes on to say, “What has he got against you?” and Willy replies, “Don’t talk. Let’s go to sleep.” The next thing she then says is, “Will you ask Howard to let you work in New York,” which in my opinion means, “I want you here where I can keep an eye on you.”
It’s all very clever. There’s no spare word in the play that isn’t used, so you know that every word you say must be a clue and if you haven’t found out why you say something, it usually goes with the bits that seem odd, or the bits that, if you examine them, you’ll go on to find an interesting answer.
With Alex Hassell (Biff) 
JB:    Thank you for that remarkable insight. Moving on, Death Of A Salesman has been described as the greatest American play. Give me your thoughts on that description and upon Miller’s writing.
HW:    I absolutely agree, it is the great American play and inasmuch as America’s ethics affect the whole world, with the notion of success and failure being down to the individual, the idea that you’ve got this country where everything is possible, so if you’re not making it, it must be your fault.
That’s an incredible burden to put on an individual, but it comes with the notion of liberty. It’s an American dream and it’s an American ideal, but it filters down to everybody and that’s why the play works in so many other countries.
I think it’s also astonishingly well-crafted, considering Miller was 34 when he wrote it. There’s not only the compassion and the understanding he has for all the characters and the intricacies of family life that are so brilliantly realized, but the actual structure of the play.
It’s just brilliantly constructed. I think it is one of the greatest plays I’ve ever been involved in.

JB:    Do you believe the play has a relevance to an English audience – and also, do you believe the play still has a message in 2015, nearly 70 years after it premiered on Broadway? 
HW:    Well, I think the idea of parents and particularly fathers and sons, is probably going to be an issue that’s with us forever and has been with us forever. The whole notion of the balance that parents have to play between imposing values on their children and playing out their own failures and expectations through their children, it is impossible to be neutral about your child. No child can be a blank page for more than a day of its life. I think the notion of parental responsibility to children, children fighting for their freedom to get out from under, is universal and eternal.
The particular modern world that we’re in is the same world that Arthur Miller was depicting in the sense that it’s the post-war world of linking free flow of money and capitalism with freedom to behave how you want to behave and make your own world and make your own life, which is riddled with contradictions and disappointments.
It’s probably, as Churchill said, the best system we have come up with yet, so it’s tying in the political world of how one generation hands down to another, with the family world in the microcosm of the family.
The thing that’s majorly changed is the role of women, but in many plays where you have to play this rather faceless, back-foot character in period pieces. You do feel Arthur Miller is “paying attention”, in his own words, to Linda.
I very much wish an Arthur Miller would write a play about women. To include feminism in the politics of the play would be great, but it doesn’t. It’s of its time. What Miller does do is to give you plenty of focus, though at least this production takes up the offer that Arthur Miller gives of focusing on Linda. 
When it’s her turn, he gives her the last word of the play and I wish there was more. I don’t know, I can’t wish the play to be different, because it isn’t, but to be truly relevant as a statement in 2015, you’d have to have the complication of the woman’s voice arguing in there as well.
With Antony Sher
JB:    Tell me about working with Antony Sher. 
HW:    I’ve worked with Antony before. He’s rock solid, a unique craftsman. I think of him as a craftsman, because he does build a character three-dimensionally and sort of step into it. Then you look behind the eyes and he’s incredibly alive.
It’s wonderful if you can believe the person you’re playing opposite and Antony is quite a private man, so I know him on stage better than I know him off stage.
That all contributes to being able to believe in what he’s doing and believe in him as your husband. He’s a great performer.
JB:    My final comment is much lighter! Cynthia Erivo, who acted with you in Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse last year, described your knowledge – and above all, your willingness to share your knowledge as “immeasurable”. She described you as hilarious and lovely and a very cool woman whose inner kid is still alive and playing.
HW:    That is lovely. I don’t think that inner kid ever dies, actually!
JB:    Harriet, thank you so much for your time and “break a leg” for the transfer.

Death Of A Salesman plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18th July 2015

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PRODUCT – Arcola Theatre

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Arcola Theatre, London

***
Written by Mark RavenhillDirected by Robert Shaw

Olivia Poulet
Ten years is a long time in the theatre and as geo-political influences and events have shifted, so too has Mark Ravenhill’s Product that was written in 2005 for a world post 9/11, come to look a little dated.
The one-hander focusses around movie producer Leah who is attempting to sell the role of Amy to Julia, a wannabe starlet. The emptiness of Amy’s life and by analogy Leah’s, is highlighted in the sharp contrast between what motivates her and what motivates the tall, dusky ‘hero’.
Ravenhill’s perspectives would have been timely and relevant in their day, with Amy having been wounded by the events of 9/11 and the loss of her lover in the Twin Towers’ destruction. The writer’s aim of confronting our own prejudices, stereotypes and interestingly, our fantasies too, not so much of Islam, but of Islamic men, would also have made for an interesting conceit, giving us a flavour of the appeal to loveless faithless Western women of the tall, dusky men whose lives are dominated by ‘the knife’ and ‘the prayer mat’, subservient to the mullah and a guaranteed path to paradise.
But the shadow of recent years’ atrocities, both in the UK and abroad, have cast a sobering shadow over Ravenhill’s “romanticized” perspective and writing a decade ago, he could never have conceived the notion of young women fleeing this country in the hope of finding love amongst terrorist fighters abroad. 
Olivia Poulet’s Leah is a powerful performance with the cliché rich text that Leah enthusiastically thumbs throughout the 50 minute monologue quite possibly serving as a metaphor for her own cliché ridden life. The passion with which she enthuses the storyline’s references to its heroine’s huge loft style apartment in a converted East London abattoir, albeit lacking a loving relationship, suggest her own lifestyle might be somewhat similar.
Whilst its relevance may have waned, Product remains a powerfully performed and sharp observation of the humiliating process of pitching, written with a generous measure of humour that draws an empathetic laugh from the audience. Poulet’s creation of the parallel characters of Leah and Amy, bringing the starlet Julia to life through her one-way exchanges with the audience, is masterful and her performance alone justifies the ticket.

Runs until 23rd May 2015

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE – Shakespeare’s Globe

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Shakespeare’s Globe, London
*****
Written by William ShakespeareDirected by Jonathan Munby

Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce
Jonathan Munby’s production of The Merchant Of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe is likely to prove a long remembered classic. The staging offers an interaction with the groundlings that defines the raison d’être of this remarkable venue and with some of the Bard’s finest verse bestowed upon both Shylock and Portia, Jonathan Pryce and Rachel Pickup respectively provide a masterclass in English poetry. 
It can be all too easy to forget that The Merchant Of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Munby’s production however makes much wonderfully timed merriment, with Stefan Adegbola’s Launcelot Gobbo putting on a class act that is as much Vaudeville stand up as it is classic Elizabethan drama. Elsewhere, David Sturzaker’s drunken Gratiano and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa make for excellent comic foils.
The design of both costume and stage is gorgeous. The dress is of the period, with the Venetian masked Carnevale a prominent theme. Designer Mike Britton’s Belmont is suggested magnificently by drapes of burnished gauze that billow in the Southwark breeze, cleverly catching the light and evoking a modest understatement to the wealth of Portia’s estate 
So much for the hilarity, there is heartbreak too – and in the most complex of parent-child dilemmas, Pryce wrestles with the demands of his Jewish faith as daughter Jessica spurns both father and tradition for her gentile lover, Ben Lamb’s Lorenzo. That Jessica is played by Pryce’s real life daughter Phoebe (who eschewing any whiff of nepotistic stunt-casting, more than earns her stripes) only adds to the moments of emotional devastation hurled at us. 
Much too is made of Bassanio’s bisexuality as Daniel Lapaine and Dominic Mafham’s Antonio the eponymous Merchant, make frequent references to their past love. Away from the comedy again, Munby spotlights Portia’s anguish as she comes to realise her new husband’s sexual history, making for another neat and credible shot of pain.
Throughout, Munby’s work is nothing short of visionary. His Princes of Morroco and Arragon (Scott Karim and Christopher Logan respectively) are stereotyped caricatures – indeed Karim’s Arabic creation could be straight out of Disney’s Aladdin. But Munby knows just when to ease off too. Whilst his Princes may be buffoons, there is no hint of grotesque Jewish caricature to Shylock, with the director letting the evil of the play’s prejudice speak for itself.
Whilst Shakespeare’s original English text is respected, Munby takes brave linguistic licence elsewhere. Shylock and Jessica converse in Yiddish behind closed doors, whilst a devastating epilogue sees the now proselytised Jewess lament in Hebrew, whilst her father is subject to the full baptismal onslaught of a Catholic Latin liturgy.
But the heartbeat of this production lies in its devastating depiction of racist hatred. Shylock speaks of having been and is, spat upon. The courtroom scene is imbued with a lynch-mob menace that bays for the Jew’s blood. Whilst his desire for murderous vengeance can never be condoned, this production more than most, speaks clearly of the lifetime of abuse that the old money-lender has endured.
In what is likely to prove one of the capital’s stand out Shakespeare plays of the year, Pryce’s performance dominates and devastates. We share the pain of his yelp as his skullcap is brutally removed, realising more than anything else that the prejudices of 17th century Venice were barely different from those of Hitler’s Berlin in the 1930s. And when we read today of the barbarity wreaked upon Iraq’s Yazidis and upon many of Africa’s Christian communities, we can only weep at Shakespeare’s timeless wisdom.

Runs until 7th June
Image by Manuel Harlan

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In The Dead Of Night – Review

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Landor Theatre, London

***

Written and directed by Claudio Macor

Judith Paris and Susannah Allman
In The Dead Of Night sets out an ambitious premise. Very much a nod to the film noir of the 1940s, Claudio Macor’s play draws upon the classic romantic motifs with a tale set in the fictional South American town of La Roca.  Amidst an intrigue of whores, drug cartels, sleazy dockside rendezvous and ultimately murder, passions run high and hearts are broken.
But back in the day Hollywood was enslaved to the Hays Code – a puritanical ethic that governed all aspects of intimacy and sexuality in the movie industry. Macor has already explored this era with The Tailor Made Man. In The Dead Of Night takes artistic licence one step further, by pitching the plot as though the Hays Code did not exist. Gay love is celebrated rather than hidden, whilst the straight sex simmers too. The noir genre cruelly demands respect and scripting the period can prove to be a notorious challenge if melodrama is to be avoided. Whilst Macor’s research into the cocaine-fuelled period is learned and sincere, he overdoses on cliché.
Acclaimed actor Judith Paris leads the company as La Roca’s ageing madam, Elvira. Paris is a delight, making a larger than life character accessible, whilst at the same time casting a GILF-like spell over most of the men in town.  Shamelessly exploitative, Macor has chosen his performers with an eye for beauty as much as for talent. Countless ripped young men strut about in vests and butt-slung braces, who if they are not lusting after Elvira, are falling at the feet of Susannah Allman’s Rita, or in the story’s strongest love theme, each other. Defying the conventions of the time, the story leads on the doomed love between Leandro and Massimo, respectively Matt Mella and Jordan Alexander, in a courtship that includes some fabulously choreographed man to man tango.
And it’s Anthony Whiteman’s choreography that marks this show out. Delivering quite possibly the best off-West End dance work in London today, his sublime tangos and salsas are breath-taking for what they accomplish, especially given the Landor’s modest space. Immaculately drilled, his company oozes passion whilst the perfectly sculpted and scantily clad Allman, gives a performance that is not only a smouldering tribute to Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, but also a sensational dance accomplishment as she moves around her would be suitors.
Notable too on the night are Ned Wolfgang Kelly’s devious Falchi, whilst Ross Harper Millar’s Martinez is memorably classy as a drink and drugs addled Latin bum.
Overblown hokum for sure, but with Paul Boyd (he of Molly Wobbly fame)  having laid down a keyboard driven backing score that adds to both time and genre and all supporting a deliciously talented troupe, In The Dead Of Night makes for an entertaining night out. Worth catching!

Runs to 16th May 2015  

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Death Of A Salesman – Review

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Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
*****
Written by Arthur MillerDirected by Greg Doran

Harriet Walter and Antony SherTo read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here

Death Of A Salesman not only marks the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth, but in Greg Doran’s production being staged over Shakespeare’s April birthday, is also the RSC’s jewel in its 2015 crown.
Widely acclaimed as the greatest American play, we witness a meticulous dissection of the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. His sales are flagging, buyers won’t see him anymore and he has been reduced to “commission only” by his young and ruthless boss Howard, a man who (in one of many moments of Miller’s cruel perception) Willy has watched grow up from boyhood to inherit his family’s business. The mounting finance bills on car (and hellishly, even the refrigerator) remind us of the domestic pressures that Antony Sher’s Willy can never escape.
As guilt and failure take their toll on Loman, we see early on how wise his wife (Harriet Walter’s Linda) is to his confusion. “Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.” But she is being kind. As act one unfolds, Harriet Walter delivers one of the most devastating female performances, telling sons Biff and Happy that not only is she fully aware of Willy’s suicidal depression, but that she cannot let him know that she knows, for such a revelation would destroy him. Linda’s strength as a wife and mother, desperate to glue her family together is a recognisable pain and as Walter spoke, the sobbing around the auditorium was profound.
Miller is merciless as he twists the knife into Loman’s last desperate hours. As Biff again disappoints him, the true depths of Willy’s guilt and shame are revealed, whilst Happy (Sam Marks convincing as the shallow even if ultimately loving son, too easily led by his trousers) is happy to desert his desolate father in a restaurant, as he heads off in pursuit of women.
Loman’s descent will be recognised by all and quite possibly be familiar to many and yet along the way he encounters everyday kindnesses too. Linda’s love for her husband breaks our hearts, whilst Charley (a beautifully weighted performance from the lugubrious Joshua Richards) provides one of the most touching definitions of friendship ever penned. In the play’s Requiem, Charley’s eulogy echoes Horatio’s “now cracks a noble heart” speech from Hamlet, as the old New Yorker says of Willy: 
”He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”
Nowhere else in the canon has the so-called “American dream” been so concisely revealed as the nightmare that it can so easily become.
Besides the faultless text, it is Doran’s company that mark this production as one of the greats. Sat at his kitchen table, the shoe-shining Sher defines Miller’s anti-hero for a new generation and as his mind unravels, Sher’s Loman is as brilliantly desperate as he is pitiful.
In a pairing that has seen Alex Hassell play Hal to Sher’s Falstaff, so is the younger man now Biff. Magnificent throughout, it is late into act two when Hassell, with minimal dialogue and outstanding acting, portrays a young man watching the rock that he had previously believed his father to be, crumble before his eyes. Watching the equal despair of the humiliated father and his devastated son, both now destroyed, is almost unbearable. 
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ powerfully overbearing set depicts a tenemented Brooklyn, the Lomans’ home, where nothing grows anymore – and as Miller has the play’s action flash between the years, so too does the staging mirror Loman’s muddled mind. Credit also to Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s music, both perfectly enhancing time and place.
In 1979 Miller described Warren Mitchell in Mitchel Rudman’s National Theatre production, as “definitive”. I saw the NT show more than once and Greg Doran’s version shares that pantheon. 
A tragedy that is timeless and epic and yet also everyman, Death Of A Salesman plays at Stratford, before an immediate transfer to London. The production is unmissable. Drama does not come better than this.

Plays at Stratford until 2nd May 2015. Then plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 9th May until 18th July 2015

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The Jew Of Malta – Review

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Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

****

Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Justin Audibert

Jasper Britton
Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta play takes a tale of cunning and avarice, love and hypocrisy and strips it down to the basest of humanities at its core. Barabas  the Jew is a man for whom it is possible to feel both compassion and disgust.  He hadn’t chosen his calling, having first been a physician, then an engineer and finally a usurer.  Yet it is in that money-lending role that he is singled out by Ferneze, Malta’s Christian governor, to fill the island’s war chest or face conversion to Christianity. And as the Muslim Turks threaten Malta, so do we find Marlowe sketching out a contemporary, if troubling resonance, as the three Abrahamic faiths challenge each other
Justin Audibert’s intelligent production sees Jasper Britton give a warmth and joie de vivre to Barabas that one might not have expected from a man destined to ultimately wreak hideous revenge. Britton’s wiles and connivances serve only to endear him to the audience, whom he plays beautifully, with a string of raised eyebrows and intimately glanced asides. An unexpected counterpoint to the Jew is Ithamore, his Moorish slave. Lanre Malaolu bounces and clowns across the stage as we witness the slave perversely worming his way deeper into the affections of his master.
The threatening Turkish armada is led by Calymath, ably played by Marcus Griffith in true swashbuckling form. As the intrigues of the plot, riddled with treachery and deceit lead to an inevitably tragic conclusion, we witness the duplicity of inter-faith conflict alongside an even more painful intra-familial despair as Barabas and daughter Abigail, (sensitively and spiritedly played by Catrin Stewart) both come to despise the other, with fatal consequences.
Steven Pacey’s Ferneze displays a recognisable statesman-like duplicity, as he schemes both with and against Barabas to defend his nation, whilst we catch but a glimpse of Marlowe endorsing his own personal inclinations when Simon Hedger’s Merchant says ‘I count religion but a childish toy’.
In a production that thrills, Jonathan Girling’s music enhances proceedings. His introduction however of a 19th century klezmer sound, whose history derives from the European Ashkenazi Jewish community whereas Malta’s Jews hailed from a distinctly Mediterranean Sephardi heritage, does seem a little incongruous.
But elsewhere the detail invested in The Jew Of Malta is meticulous, manifest in the clarity, diction and playing of the company for whom neither a syllable nor glance is wasted. Bringing their world class style to this Elizabethan classic, with Lily Arnold’s plainest of sets proving a foil to magnificent costumes, The RSC again deliver magnificent theatre.

In repertory until 29th August 2015

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Bad Jews – Review

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Arts Theatre, London
**
Written by Joshua HarmonDirected by Michael Longhurst 

Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen
Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London’s St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews’ “mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.
The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be “a good title for a play”. Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.
Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot’s action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.

Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire.  It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.
To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna’s piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and “marrying out” upon Judaism’s cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it’s all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.
Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn’t accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews – and that’s both before and after Hitler – and Harmon’s failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.
And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical.  However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews’ audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family’s struggles to cope with the Holocaust’s devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.
Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman’s Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It’s a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen’s Daphna, almost a year into the play’s run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.
Completing the quartet, Joe Coen’s Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.
In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain’t it.

Runs to 30th May 2015

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Harvey – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
****
Written by Mary ChaseDirected by Lindsay Posner

Maureen Lipman and James Dreyfus
There are few shows in town more charming than Lindsay Posner’s re-working of this 1940’s all-American fable. Widowed Veta Simmons lodges with her daughter in the home of her wealthy brother Elwood P Dowd. Yet much is amiss, for as Simmons strives to keep up a genteel facade of normality, Dowd’s closest confidante is Harvey, an invisible giant rabbit and much of the play hinges upon the anguish that his behaviour causes to his loved ones. 
This parable of the savant, who in today’s jargon would be classified as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and yet who sees his world with a clarity denied his fellows, has already been explored in Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winner preceded those modern classics by some decades and as her Harvey lifts the curtain on a petty-minded small town, so we see Dowd’s noble and chivalrous pursuit of all that is good in life, shine out as a beacon amongst his morally flawed peers, all signed up to the rat-race.
James Dreyfus is Dowd bringing a comic pathos to a beautifully created character. We laugh at the witty excellence of his performance though with a compassionate chuckle rather than the poking of cruel fun at a Bedlam lunatic. Dreyfus convinces us of his belief in Harvey and at the same time plays the straightest of bats as his (and the company’s) pinpoint timing sees the plot’s farcical elements unfold delightfully.
Opposite Dreyfus is Maureen Lipman’s Veta. Amongst the best actors of her generation, Lipman commands our sympathy as she strives to find a suitor for Myrtle Mae her grown daughter, whilst supporting her brother’s mental frailty. We feel her frustration at the difficulties she has to manage, yet at the finale we almost weep at the loving compassion she shows her sibling. Powerful stuff indeed, although glossing over the physical abuse Veta inadvertently suffers in the local sanitarium, as comedy rather than the ghastly brutality that it truly represents, is perhaps the script’s only flaw. It was to be another thirty years before Jack Nicholson’s Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was to define how the cruelty of mental institutions should truly be portrayed.
Dreyfus and Lipman lead a marvellous troupe. Ingrid Oliver’s Myrtle Mae nails the awkward self-centredness of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, whilst Sally Scott’s psychiatric Nurse Kelly is a clever portrayal of cutely cognisant compassion. David Bamber is psychiatrist Dr Chumley, a medic who undergoes a Damascene conversion of his own with Bamber giving the complex role the comic mania it deserves. The play’s endgame sees Linal Haft, in a tiny role, play a cab driver whose revelatory monologue moves both hearts and minds. (And those eagle-eyed and over 40 may recall Haft’s Melvyn, the much put-upon son to Lipman’s Beattie in the BT 1980s ad campaign.) 
Peter McKintosh’s set displays an ingenious elegance as interlocking revolves shift the action between home and clinic, whilst meticulous design in both costume and wigs set the time and tone perfectly.
Old fashioned for sure and with American accents that occasionally grate, the show is a curiosity of a production, but nonetheless bravo to the Birmingham Rep and its co-producers for having taken it on the road. When late into the second act, as Dowd reveals that during his lifetime he has known what it is to be “smart” as well as what it is to be profoundly pleasant, it is with a moving wisdom that he reports (and we feel chastened), that “being pleasant” is nicer. An allegory with the feel-good warmth of an adult fairy tale, Harvey makes for excellent theatre performed by a fabulous cast.

Runs until 2nd May 2015

The Father – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Trafalgar Studios, London

****

Written by August Strindberg
In a new version by Laurie Slade
Directed by Abbey Wright

Alex Ferns

Few go to a Strindberg play looking for an harmonious depiction of the sexes and this co-production between Emily Dobbs’ Jagged Fence and Making Productions, while sharp in its execution, won’t do much to radicalise expectations. 

Written in 1887 by the deeply embittered Swedish playwright, on the brink of marital separation and in a fashion that has triggered many autobiographical interpretations, The Father pitches husband and wife into a dark custody battle that predates paternity tests and equal rights. Laurie Slade’s modern adaptation – requested by his friend, theatre director Joe Harmston for a 2012 production – is driven more by collaborative forces than real-life drama, but it retains the original’s antagonistic bite.

Director Abbey Wright takes the reins for this intimate production with great success. While the Captain’s last-minute attempt to break the fourth wall doesn’t sit well with the play’s largely naturalistic style, Wright’s depiction of conflict – whether that be between husband and wife, mother and daughter, or father and child – is as stylish as it is evocative. As the warring characters face each other in mirror image, Wright clouds the dialogue’s clear oppositions with vivid visual similarities.

Thomas Coombes is a treat as Nöjd, the playful trooper who, if rumour is to believed, has impregnated a member of the Captain’s staff. While Nöjd is unable to deny a certain degree of intimacy, it is beyond his power to prove whether or not the baby is his. Coombes excels at lacing Nöjd’s crude, pastoral expression – “no guarantee that a night in the hay means a bun in the oven” – with a cheeky, modern charm, furnishing Slade’s notion that this is “a modern play, which happens to be set in the C.19th”.

What seems like idle gossip transforms into psychologically taut obsession as the play pulls towards its inevitable conclusion. Just as Nöjd doubts his lover’s fidelity, Alex Ferns’s dazzling Captain ploughs his own memories, as he questions whether young Bertha, who calls him ‘Papa’, is actually his issue or was in fact conceived by wife Laura (excellent on-stage work from Dobbs) during a lovers’ tryst. Ferns is vibrantly volatile and while other characters are equally paired in their disputes, he retains a chilling control over the tempo of the piece. 

While the relationship between the Captain and his wife provides the thrust of this narrative, and the Captain and his Doctor (Barnaby Sax) are splendidly matched as rivals, it is the tender and trusting affinity between Captain and Nurse (June Watson) that brings the strongest emotional clout: “rest your breast on my chin”, the Captain commands his attendant, as a redundant Laura looks on jealously. This gentle, strikingly maternal relationship is complemented by James Turner’s set and Gary Bowman lighting, all stripped-back, monochrome as a Gothic aesthetic gradually melts into warmer reds.

Husband and wife may be “black and white…different species” but there’s a faith in relationships and the power of one gender to sooth and complement another. While this production doesn’t fall far from Strindberg’s tree, it’s a well-designed and interrogative take on an unfashionable play.

Runs until 11th April 2015

Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook

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Review: Meat (Theatre 503, London)

In Reviews by Johnny FoxLeave a Comment

In the pub below the theatre, the waitress apologized that they’d run out of tomato ketchup. Two minutes in to Graham Turner’s wholly authentic performance as slaughterhouse worker Vincent whose mantra is ‘you’ve got to cut the carotid artery’ as a means of dispatching an animal, we knew why. Vincent is struggling with the grinding […]

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Review: Meat (Theatre 503, London)

In Reviews by Johnny FoxLeave a Comment

In the pub below the theatre, the waitress apologized that they’d run out of tomato ketchup. Two minutes in to Graham Turner’s wholly authentic performance as slaughterhouse worker Vincent whose mantra is ‘you’ve got to cut the carotid artery’ as a means of dispatching an animal, we knew why. Vincent is struggling with the grinding […]

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Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Bridewell Theatre)

In Reviews by Johnny FoxLeave a Comment

At a time when bankers and brokers are pilloried in the media for turning the economy into a gibbering basket-case, the idea that a bunch of amateur thespians from the Stock Exchange should get together to perform the inmates-take-over-the-asylum piece ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is so delicious that it’s a must-see. The multiple […]

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Review: State Fair (Finborough Theatre)

In Musicals, Reviews by Johnny FoxLeave a Comment

The persistent fondness of Rodgers and Hammerstein for corn-fed country settings is at odds with their gritty New York City upbringing. Nostalgic affection for the farmer and the cowgirl is confirmed by Oklahoma!, Carousel and even Ensign Nellie Forbush marooned on her South Pacific island, sings of being “as corny as Kansas in August” For […]

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